‘Fees’ and frustration: Myanmar’s mixed-marriage law, in practice

A wedding should be a happy, auspicious time for the couple and their friends and family, but for a man outside of the Buddhist faith wishing to marry a Buddhist woman in Myanmar, a gruelling series of obstacles awaits.

By YE MON | FRONTIER

MARRIAGE is not something that should be entered into lightly. But should the process of getting permission to marry overshadow both the decision and the actual wedding? That was certainly my experience when my wife and I married earlier this year. At one point, it looked as though the two months we had allotted to take care of the paperwork would not be enough. We seriously considered postponing our wedding.

Most people in Myanmar do not face such problems, however. The issue is that I’m Christian and my wife is Buddhist, and we wanted to marry in a church. In 2015, the national legislature, under pressure from Buddhist nationalists, passed the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law, and this created additional hurdles for couples in which the woman is Buddhist and the man a non-Buddhist.

The law states that if a Buddhist woman and a man who is not Buddhist wish to marry, they must submit an application to the General Administration Department. A public notice is posted and if no objection is received within 14 days then they are able to proceed. In contrast, exclusively Buddhist or Christian couples face no real bureaucratic hurdles.

If a mixed-religion couple want to marry in a Buddhist monastery or hotel, the new procedures can be annoying but not overly burdensome. Marrying in a church is a different story; church leaders are so wary of the sensitivities around mixed marriages that they demand additional recommendation letters from the authorities as a kind of insurance policy in case an objection is made later.

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I had never considered marriage to be something that really concerned the government; rather, I viewed it as a matter for the couple and, most likely, their families and religious authorities. Unfortunately, the process for our marriage involved a significant amount of interaction with the GAD and the courts, and therefore involves quite a bit of money and frustration. If these officials followed the steps specified in the law then it wouldn’t have been such an issue, but GAD officers in particular are notorious for exerting power arbitrarily when dealing with the public.

The first step is for both partners to go to their ward GAD office and get a recommendation letter stating that they are unmarried. The next stage is to go to the township court and sign an affidavit stating that they plan to get married and their families consent to the marriage.

Normally we would have signed the affidavit in front of the township judge but I couldn’t go to the court due to work commitments. Instead we signed it in front of my ward administrator from Sanchaung Township, who then took it directly to the judge for approval and signature. Please don’t think this convenient solution came cheap; it required payments of K50,000 and K30,000 to the ward official and the township judge, respectively.

If the judge approves the affidavit, the next step is the township GAD office, because under the 2015 law the township administrators are registry officers for mixed-religion marriages. There you have to submit an application form. You can do this in the township in which you reside or the one in which your partner resides (we submitted it to my administrator in Sanchaung Township).

When you go to the township GAD office, you need to be careful. In our experience, the staff and even the administrator were not well trained to provide public services. The delays at this stage were a source of frustration for both of us.

We both had to bring our parents and a witness each (in our case, a friend) to sign the application documents. The township GAD office then issues notices that are to be put up in both township and ward offices announcing the intention to marry and inviting any objections.

Except, there was a problem – a few problems, actually.

“The township administrator is having lunch – he is not here,” said a female staff member at the GAD office.

So we waited – for three hours.  Where does he eat lunch, I wondered – Nay Pyi Taw?

Finally, the administrator arrived back in the office. But the woman then informed us that our applications were incomplete.

We were really angry for two reasons. First, that she had made us wait for three hours before checking the documents. Second, that the “missing” document was not required. She claimed we needed a recommendation letter from the administrator of the ward in Bogale Township, Ayeyarwady Region, where my wife had lived a decade ago. I pointed out to her that the law doesn’t say that that the letter needs to be from an applicant’s place of origin.

But she was insistent – the township administrator would reject the application without the letter.

We returned home despondent. I went to see the ward administrator again. When I told him what happened, all he said was: “Don’t worry, I will convince him. You can go home.” He then asked me to pay K10,000 or K20,000 “tea money” to one of his staff members to avoid any “problems” with our application.

Two days later, we received copies of the notice that was to be put on public display. The notice stated our names and invited anyone with an objection to the marriage to submit a letter with a reason and evidence. We gave the notices to my ward office, my wife’s ward office and her township office in Mayangone. The law is silent on administrative fees, but it cost us K100,000 to get the required copies of the notice.

According to the law, these notices should be publicly displayed for 14 days. After that period, the relevant administrators should inform the Sanchaung township administrator if there are any objections. If not then the township administrator can issue a letter stating that there have been no objections.

We waited 15 days and heard nothing. It was now February 5, and we were getting worried: our wedding was scheduled for February 14, barely a week away. The Mayangone Township GAD office didn’t seem to care at all about this. When my wife called the staffer who had accepted the notice, she said she was on leave and to call back in two days.

We began seriously considering postponing the wedding.

Finally, on February 7 we received the letter and we signed an affidavit in front of the Sanchaung Township administrator on February 8. I think there was an expectation we would pay more tea money. Having already spent K200,000 greasing the wheels of bureaucracy, we decided not to.

The next bit was relatively easy: we held the wedding. We handed over all the documents to the pastor and became husband and wife according to the law. We no longer had to worry.

But the experience upset me. Weddings should be a happy, auspicious time for the couple and their friends and family. They should not be a time of headaches and uncertainty.

The government has a responsibility to end the discrimination against couples of mixed religions, but sadly I doubt it will have the courage to take on the nationalist forces that campaigned so strongly for the law back in 2015.

By Ye Mon

By Ye Mon

Ye Mon started as a reporter at Pyithu Khit news journal in 2011. Prior to joining Frontier, he worked as a reporter at the Myanmar Times and on the DVB English team.
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